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February 03, 2023

How does Kyrie Irving trade request impact the Sixers?

Does this mean Kevin Durant might become available?

Saying that Kyrie Irving marches to the beat of his own drum is a fundamental misunderstanding of how drums work, keeping the rhythm in the background while the chaos bringers on guitars and microphones do their thing. The lord of NBA chaos decided to bust out another solo on Friday afternoon, demanding a trade away from the Brooklyn Nets as a result of failed extension talks.

That's the word from, well, every plugged-in reporter in the NBA right now. This has been building over time, with Turner's Chris Haynes obtaining quotes from Irving's agent (Shetellia Irving) last week, putting pressure on the Nets in a public setting.

Around Kyrie and staying with the Nets? I have reached out to the Nets regarding this," his agent Shetellia Irving told Bleacher Report. "We have had no significant conversations to date. The desire is to make Brooklyn home, with the right type of extension, which means the ball is in the Nets' court to communicate now if their desire is the same." [B/R]

Evidently, things have not progressed in the right direction since those comments were made on January 25th, and now Irving is trying to get out of Brooklyn by whatever means necessary. And that leaves the Nets, to put it lightly, in complete turmoil.

So let's go through a few key points as they relate to the Sixers.

Stay away from this guy

"Should the Sixers explore an Irving trade?" is a natural question you could ask coming out of this saga, and the answer is no. Kevin Durant is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, played MVP-level basketball while on the floor this year, and has been rewarded for sticking by Irving with this nonsense. Irving is a spectacularly-gifted player, one whose aesthetics match his production, but he has proven repeatedly he cannot be trusted in a leadership role for a team that matters. Set aside the "personal belief" category of Irving nonsense — his vaccination stance, his anti-semitism, and so on — and what it all boils down to is that you can't rely on him. Unless you have LeBron James at the absolute peak of his powers, he is not worth the headache.

The price basically doesn't matter. If salaries were not a factor and you could trade for Irving using bottom-of-the-barrel assets, I personally still would not do it. And I would especially not do it as the Sixers, who have a team with a clear hierarchy, players buying into their roles, and a good understanding of who they are. Uprooting all of that to take a swing on Irving ostensibly fits the "stars at all costs" philosophy Daryl Morey has been driven by in the past, but I think he'd draw the line here. There seems to be legit bad blood between Irving and James Harden, and that alone is worth killing the thought of this move. It seems crazy to think about an All-Star starter averaging 27-5-5 on great efficiency, but why bother?

Seriously — Irving gave this quote (shading Harden, naturally) on January 15th. 

This is a guy you want to pin hope on as a foundational player? Pass.

Reshaping the Eastern Conference

Let's assume a couple of things from a potential Irving trade pre-deadline:

  1. The Nets are going to take a short-term hit if they trade him
  2. The Nets probably screwed if they have him on the roster post-deadline

When they've had their stars healthy, Brooklyn has evolved into a problem in the Eastern Conference, going on an 18-2 run across 20 games with Irving and Durant playing some of the best offensive basketball in the league. Nic Claxton's emergence as their third-best player also helped to solidify the defense, and though they've tailed off in form with Durant on the shelf, they've proven a healthy version of this group should be viewed as a real threat.

However this goes before next Thursday, that belief is now gone. Trading Irving on an expiring contract in a desperate situation might return a more "stable" player than Irving, but it won't return a better one. And if Brooklyn chooses to roll the dice and keep Irving, hoping that a title shot remains in play or that he can eventually be coerced into a long-term commitment, that feels like a doomed scenario either way. If you want to give "credit" to Irving for anything, it's his willingness to put his foot down for a cause he believes in, whether it's an admirable cause or not.

In either scenario, the Sixers (and the other would-be contenders in the East) benefit from Brooklyn's turmoil. The "how" is not as clear — right now, the Nets sit in fourth in the Eastern Conference, two up in the loss column on the fifth-seeded Cavaliers. There's no telling how his non-commitment (or partial commitment) to the Nets would weigh on Brooklyn in the standings, and there isn't that much distance between the Nets and the teams around the sixth and seventh seeds in the conference. Even in a scenario where this group holds things together and stays around their current level, you'd probably cut the list of potential Eastern contenders to three, with respect to the up-and-coming Cavs and the always-scrappy Heat.

On the one hand, that knocks out a team everybody started to fear prior to Durant's injury. On the other, unless you're able to get the No. 1 seed or the Nets drop like a stone in the standings, you're unlikely to benefit from the chaos in Brooklyn. The Celtics getting a compromised (spiritually, mentally, Ben Simmons-ly) in the second round would give them an easier path to the Conference Finals than the Bucks and Sixers, who would be forced to duke it out in round two and presumably enter a Conference Finals series much more banged up.

I still think it ends up being a net positive for the Sixers in the sense that it neuters a big potential threat. But here's the most important thing...

...does Durant become available?

Kevin Durant hitching his wagon to Irving seems like a stranger decision by the day, though you can at least see the vision when you see the on-court brilliance and the heights the Nets hit at times this season. If Irving is sent packing, you have to wonder if Durant has any interest in seeing things through in Brooklyn, assuming they get role players and/or picks back for the disgruntled meme lord. And the Durant proposition is much different than trading for Irving's brand of chaos.

Durant is one of the single greatest players to ever touch a basketball. Under contract into his late 30s — he has three years left on his deal after this season — you could conceivably acquire one of the game's all-time great scorers with plenty of points left to drop on opposing defenders. Prior to suffering an injury, Durant was averaging 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game on 55.9/37.6/93.4 shooting splits. He is unguardable most of the time, his length so preposterous that teams can only get near his airspace as he rises up to can jumpers. As the years have gone on, he has gotten better and better at harnessing the value of his scoring/shooting ability from all over the floor and using it to impact the game all over the floor. He was a terrific, versatile defender for the Warriors at their zenith, averaged more assists last season than in any year of his career, and this is his most efficient season ever at age 34, albeit in just 39 games played so far.

The Sixers, sources say, would certainly be interested (this is about as useful as saying a source believes water is wet, for the record). But Durant's value, even in a tumultuous situation, is so significant that Philadelphia is probably left on the outside looking in no matter what they try to do.

The Sixers do not have control of their 2023, 2025, or 2027 first-round picks, and as a result of the Stepien Rule, the Sixers cannot trade their 2024, 2026, and 2028 first-round picks. That's a severe asset disadvantage against other teams who would get in the mix. Philadelphia's best trade chip, save for moving one of the untouchables (Embiid and Harden), comes in the form of Tyrese Maxey. He has had some up-and-down moments as of late, but Maxey is a 20-point scorer in year three on good efficiency across the board, growing into a role that involves leading bench units and working off-ball with Harden running the show.

Some of the young players thrown around as potential blue-chip guys in a Durant deal over the summer have disappointed this year. Toronto's Scottie Barnes, for example, has taken a step back on defense while his offensive efficiency has dipped. Barnes still has more two-way upside than Maxey, but Maxey's consistent forward progress and work ethic at a young age is a point of separation from some peers, and that's worth consideration on the trade market.

Any deal with Maxey as a centerpiece basically requires for Tobias Harris to go with him for salary purposes, and you could tinker with a deal beyond that. The lifting of vaccination requirements makes Matisse Thybulle more appealing than he would have been last year, for example. De'Anthony Melton is the sort of two-way guy you'd want to keep, but with the Sixers low on picks he could be someone that has to be considered as a value-add in a trade of this magnitude.

End of the day, Philly probably gets outbid by other teams with control of their future drafts and more expendable pieces to move. Hell, we have to worry about Kyrie getting moved before a genuine Durant trade rumor shakes the league to its core. But the uncertainty in Brooklyn has phones lighting up around the country, and Irving's request is the first domino in what could be a league-altering week. Stay tuned.

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